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Charting 30 Years of La Russa's Managerial Methods

Baseball managers are both adored and detested by the fans of the clubs they manage, and often at levels disproportionate to the manager's impact on the outcome of games. One of the storied sub-pastimes of the National Pastime is the second-guessing of the Hometown Nine's field manager. Each and every manager has his individual quirks, preferences, standard practices, and habits and each of those will inevitably rub fans the wrong way during the 162-game campaign that is baseball's regular season.

The overfamiliarity inherent in a baseball season where every game is broadcast can often lead to the fanbase sounding like one-half of a bickering couple that has been married for fifty years. "Again, Tony!?! Again with the double-switch!?! You know I hate the double-switch! It would be fine every once in a while but you do it ALL THE TIME..." Alas, La Russa cannot hear you through the television screen no matter how high its definition. Despite the one-way nature of the relationship, it makes a fan feel better to get one's grievances off of one's chest, even if it is to a nonresponsive television screen or with a comment on a website site posted from the isolation of your own home.

It can be true that familiarity breeds contempt and Tony La Russa has been around quite a long time. La Russa was promoted to manager by the Chicago White Sox during the 1979 season. In a career that has spanned over 30 seasons, La Russa has amassed 2,638 wins as a manager to go along with 2,293 losses. His win total is the third-highest in Major League history while his loss total is the second-highest (but the most for a non-own manager). La Russa has a .535 winning percentage as a manager. His clubs have made 13 postseason appearances, won five pennants, and two World Series championships. He has managed the Cardinals since 1996 and has won 1,318 games with the club, the most of any Cardinals manager. Over his three decades in the business, La Russa has developed a distinct managerial style. On this the final day of January I wanted to take a look at some of La Russa's managerial tendancies in statistical form.


La Russa is often tied to the modern bullpen. He has been credited with pioneering the use of a single pitcher to finish out ball games, the closer, and is also associated with the overuse (in the minds of some of the more tradition-inclined) of relief pitchers. One of the criticisms of La Russa that has taken root regards this overuse of the bullpen, specifically when he will use multiple relievers in an inning, often calling in a pitcher to face a single batter. To be sure, La Russa does deploy his relievers in ways in which he feels gives his club the best chance to get an out, but how much more often does he do this any other manager? The fact of the matter is that, while La Russa's bullpens led the league in appearances for a four-year stretch from 1991 through 1994, a La Russa bullpen has led its league in appearances only once since then, in 1999. In recent years, his bullpen has finished 13th, 11th, 6th, 6th, 11th, and 14th in number of appearances. In actuality, La Russa is no greater a bullpen user than his peers, and, in recent years, has even fallen behind the average pace of his peers, as this chart shows.



So the next time La Russa uses three relievers in an inning, remember that over the long haul he really is not any worse about using his bullpen than his fellow managers. It is likely just that we are not subjected to those far-off managers' daily bullpen machinations as we are La Russa's. Believe it or not, many other managers use their bullpen as often as La Russa. 


All of Cardinal Nation is all too familiar with La Russa's lineup tinkering. Last season, Pujols in the third spot and Holliday cleanup were about the only sure bets on a non-getaway day. (On a getaway day, all bets are off.) In 2009, the lucky Skip Schumaker made himself a mainstay in the leadoff slot, but his grasp on the leadoff spot was loosened during his unlucky 2010 as La Russa moved him and many other players around, attempting to ignite an offense that was slow to combust, would burn bright for short stints, and then dim for what seemed like weeks to suffering fans. Heading into 2011, I wanted to see if I could get an idea for just how much of the spice of life La Russa will provide with his lineup cards.

What becomes quite clear is that, while La Russa typically uses many different batting orders, he is more likely to meddle if his team is struggling. When the win total dips, the batting order total spikes as La Russa seems to feel the need to experiment in search of a winning combination on the field. It is an understandable impulse, evidenced by the fact that calls from fans to mix things up when an offense is struggling are common, here on VEB and elsewhere. Likewise, there is little appetite to rock the boat when the ship is smoothly sailing to victory after victory. Injuries also play a part. The 148 different lineups used in injury-plagued 2007 campaign are the most La Russa has totaled while in St. Louis.

There is an ebb and flow to his batting order totals that reflects someone who does not needlessly meddle, especially when he has a club of established veterans. La Russa used 117 different batting orders in each of 2002 and 2003 and 119 in 2004. It seems that, when faced with fewer established offensive talents, La Russa is more likely to experiment. (Hence the 140 different lineups in 2008.) With the importing of such proven veterans as Berkman and Theriot, it will be interesting to see how much La Russa moves players around. Given his comments, it seems that we ought to be seeing Pujols-Holliday-Berkman batting third through fifth in the order regularly. Where it will get interesting is who, between Theriot and Schumaker, bats leadoff and whether Rasmus finds himself batting second or sixth. Sadly, La Russa has indicated that the pitcher will most often bat ninth in 2011, seemingly taking another lineup alternative off the table. 

The next time you find yourself speaking a loud and blustery manner at your television set or car windshield as a result of La Russa's bullpen management during a Cardinals broadcast, remember that he really does not use his relievers all that much more often than average these days. And the next time you bemoan La Russa's batting order, understand that it is par for the TLR course and that if the team is winning, we are less likely to see the shuffling that will take place if the team is struggling. 2011 could very well be La Russa's last with the Cardinals, for better or worse. After all of these years together, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect from him as field manager.